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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: June 29, 2015 NO.27 JULY 2, 2015
Deadly Lesson
The MERS virus surge in South Korea raises treatment questions and dredges up bad memories of SARS
 By Yu Lintao

Travelers wear masks when shopping in Seoul on June 16 (XINHUA)

A South Korean couple's wedding photo caused quite a stir across the country's social networking sites. The picture, which shows the couple posing with family and friends, is distinctive in that everyone is wearing white surgical masks.

The couple's wedding planner later stated that the picture was not meant to be taken seriously. However, the snap has become symbolic of South Korea's health scare, as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has shown up with more and more frequency in the country since May and is spreading to other countries such as Thailand.

MERS is a respiratory tract disease caused by the MERS coronavirus. It was first discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and is believed to have originated in camels before it spread to the human population. As the virus' name might suggest, the majority of cases have occurred in the Middle East, where the virus has claimed the lives of more than 400 people, causing widespread alarm.

A similar atmosphere now pervades South Korea, rooted in the MERS panic. Television footage of China's CCTV news shows that in Seoul, the often-crowded streets of Gangnam, the city's premier club district, now appear a little desolate. It is baseball season in South Korea, but the normally crowded gaming fields contain only sparse crowds composed of the game's most faithful fans.

According to South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare, by June 22, the total number of people diagnosed with MERS in the country has exceeded 170 and so far, the number of MERS-related deaths in South Korea has reached 27. The outbreak has sparked international concern, caused the temporary closure of nearly 3,000 schools in South Korea, with 3,000 people suspected being afflicted with the virus being placed under quarantine.

The outbreak of the deadly epidemic is the largest to date outside the Middle East. It has brought with it not only public panic but also considerable economic losses.

Fatal mistakes

The outbreak of MERS has served as a lesson to South Korea's public healthcare system, which lacks readiness in its dealings with epidemic diseases.

After a week-long investigation and assessment in Seoul, a joint panel of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and South Korea concluded that the South Korean Government's failure to share information quickly with the public and establish an efficient disease-control system contributed to worsening the outbreak of MERS in the country.

Lee Jong Koo, leader of the joint panel on the Korean side, said at a news conference that "one of the things South Korea failed to do was a transparent and rapid distribution of information, which is the most important thing to do." Meanwhile, failure to establish proper governance in controlling the outbreak in its early stages also contributed to "confusion" among the public, he said.

According to local media, patient zero in the country, who began to show MERS symptoms on May 11, was quarantined on May 20. However, it took until weeks after the first case was discovered for the South Korean Government to release the names and locations of hospitals where infections might have occurred. Due to the absence of this critical information, infections spread in the hospitals.

The joint panel also identified several other contributing factors such as doctors' unfamiliarity with MERS; the country's overcrowded emergency rooms; the practice of "doctor shopping" for care at many different clinics; and the fact that hospital rooms tend to be bustling with visitors.

Doctor shopping is a common practice in South Korea, in which patients travel from clinic to clinic to compare prices. The method becomes problematic owing to the fact the patient in question may spread the diseases to an already-sick population.

China has taken precautions after cases of MERS victims were reported. One confirmed case was found in south China's Guangdong Province. However, the disease didn't spread as Chinese authorities quickly quarantined the patient after he tested positive for the virus.

Chinese medical experts said that the proper handling of the MERS case in Guangdong shows that the first-aid and infectious disease prevention system in China, enhanced during the painful period of dealing with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (commonly known as SARS), has withstood this test.

Wang Linghang, a viral infectious disease expert at the Beijing-based Ditan Hospital, said that though MERS has a very high death rate of up to 15.7 percent, it is still less infectious than SARS. The MERS case in Guangdong showed that immediate isolation and treatment of the patient can effectively prevent the disease's spread.

Since the SARS outbreak in 2003, China has upgraded their clinical treatments, research and emergency handling capacities.

"Since the SARS crisis, China has effectively dealt with H7N9 bird flu and Ebola," said Wang.

Medical institutions strengthened their monitoring of fever and pneumonia cases with unidentified causes in order to detect, diagnose and isolate MERS patients as early as possible. The Chinese aviation regulator required all airlines traveling to Korea to disinfect planes more frequently. China's quarantine and inspection, health and tourism authorities also issued a joint circular in order to prevent MERS-affected individuals from entering the country.

Economic loss

The MERS crisis has already taken a toll on South Korea's economy. South Korea's Yonhap report quoted Finance Minister Choi Kyung Hwan as saying that the country's tourism and leisure industries were hardest hit, as tens of thousands of tourists have canceled trips to South Korea due to the epidemic.

Statistics from the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) show that by June 5, about 20,600 tourists had canceled their South Korea travel plans.

Data from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) show that tourist trips from Hong Kong to South Korea have nosedived 102 percent from the same period of the previous year while those from the Chinese mainland to South Korea declined 83 percent.

South Korea surpassed Thailand and Japan to become the destination of choice for Chinese outbound tourists in 2014. KTO estimates that the number of Chinese tourists that canceled their South Korea trips in June may reach 100,000.

Asia travelers appear to be extra cautious, as the memory of the SARS outbreak is still fresh in people's minds.

Reduced demand for travel to South Korea has caused Chinese airlines to cut flights to the country. Air China has lessened its weekly flights to the country from 24 to 21, a cut that is planned to run from June 13 to the end of August. Other companies including China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Capital Airlines and budget carrier Spring Airlines have either cut or suspended flights to South Korea.

According to Choi, South Korea's retail sales fell 16.5 percent in the first week of June compared to figures from the previous month. The central bank of South Korea cut the key interest rate to a historic low of 1.5 percent in an attempt to boost the ailing economy.

Tough treatments

MERS is not a new epidemic. The Middle East is certainly no stranger to the virus and has been dealing with it since its outbreak in 2012. However, there's no perfect solution to fighting deadly diseases like MERS or Ebola.

The WHO announced that a MERS vaccine is currently in clinical trials. However, many scientists doubted whether developing a vaccine is the best way to fight an epidemic, claiming that by the time such a vaccine may be developed, the virus may disappear.

For instance, the SARS crisis caused 774 deaths in 2003. But when the crisis came to an end, drug plants refused to continue the costly SARS vaccine research project as no market, let alone a profit, existed for the product.

The message, though difficult, in the case of MERS in South Korea, may be simply to hold tight and wait for this one to pass.

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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